The Vjosa River in Albania is the last wild river in Europe outside of Russia. The river and its tributaries flow freely from the mountains in Greece to the Adriatic coast in Albania. This wilderness area is made up of an enormous mosaic of different habitats types from the narrow gorges in the upper part to the wide braided river sections in the middle part to the near-natural delta at the Adriatic Sea. The middle stretch alone is made up of at least 8 habitat types that have the highest conservation importance at the EU level.
Scientific knowledge about the Vjosa’s biodiversity and physical processes is limited. It is one of the least explored rivers in Europe. But the few existing studies underscore the importance of the river valley as Albania’s biodiversity hotspot providing ideal aquatic habitats for numerous species. The river is host to over 1,100 species, including 13 globally threatened animal species and 2 plants and at least 50 animal species and 24 plants are included in the national Red Lists of Albania.
The surrounding watershed provides the villages with fertile land for agricultural activities such as crop production and livestock farming. The abundance and diversity of fish is vital for the well-being of local fishermen mostly in the lower part of the Vjosa. Eco-tourism on the Vjosa and its tributaries is ever-increasing, particularly in recent years in which enthusiasts have started to enjoy activities such as rafting, canoeing, kayaking, swimming, etc.
For years, the entire river system has been attacked by dam projects. If constructed, they will destroy this natural environment – flooding some parts of the valley while leaving others dry. In the whole Vjosa catchment, 45 hydropower plants are planned, 8 on the Vjosa itself and 37 on its tributaries.
Three tributaries, the Langarica, the Shtika and the Çarshova river are already affected by dams and cannot be part of a future national park.
But the major threat that Vjosa is facing for the last 24 years is the plan for the construction of 2 large dams in the middle section of the river, namely: Kalivaç and Poçem hydropower dams.
But also the lower part of the Vjosa is in danger. Near the mouth of the Vjosa into the Adriatik, the Albanian government plans to build an airport inside a protected area and tourist resorts are foreseen to be built near Narta lagoon. The decision on the determination of the boundaries of the Protected Areas in Albania foresees the exclusion from the Narta Protected Area of the surface that will be potentially used for the construction of the Airport and the touristic resorts.
In September 2020, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama announced his intent to make the Vjosa a national park. However, the government has not taken any clear steps towards this designation. Plans submitted by the Albanian National Agency of Protected Areas (NAPA) include only minimal protection for the Vjosa, risking future hydropower construction, and falls far short of the protections inherent in a national park designation. Some politicians want to keep the door open for development after the elections and this puts the Vjosa in real danger.
Opportunity – Europe´s 1st Wild River National Park
The Vjosa and its tributaries are without par in Europe (outside Russia). Thus, this river landscape needs to be protected by the highest possible nature protection category – a national park according to the standards of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Together with the local community, scientists and the support from all over Albania, we want to make it happen.
We are aiming to make the Vjosa, Europe’s first Wild River National Park, safeguarding the entire ecosystem including the watershed, tributaries, and floodplains, and the inhabiting wildlife. Only this designation would permanently prevent dam projects and other development within the protected area and would make a significant contribution to the EU Green Deal and Biodiversity Strategy.
With national elections on 25 April 2021, Albanian and international nature conservation groups are calling on the public and political leaders to enshrine the future of the Vjosa and make this wild river national park a major priority for any winning party.
A National Park would not only benefit the wildlife but also the people of the Vjosa valley and the potential for sustainable socio-economic development. In the future, thousands of tourists from all over Europe will come to visit this last wild river. A recent opinion poll shows that 94 per cent of Albanian people are in favour of establishing this wild river national park.
What has been accomplished so far?
January 2014: Vjosa River received its first spotlight in the international media
May 2014: First occasion when mayors and locals from the river had the first press conference on the banks of the Vjosa and called Prime Minister Rama to reject the dam plans and to establish a Vjosa National Park instead
June 2014: First biodiversity assessment of the Vjosa together with Albanian scientists and 70 students finding
May 2015: EU Parliamentarians demand protection for the Vjosa and the halt to all dam plans
April 2016: European Parliament calls on the Albanian government to control hydropower development; specifically, in pristine areas such as the Vjosa
May 2016: International protest on the banks of the Vjosa to show local resistance to a large dam project. A special petition in the form of a kayak was left at PM Rama’s doorstep.
December 2016: Local residents together with national and international NGOs filed a lawsuit against Poçem hydropower, a new dam project on the Vjosa
May 2017: Administrative court in Tirana decided in favour of EcoAlbania and local representatives to stop a dam project. The Turkish investor Ayen Enerji and the Environment Ministry appealed the court decision. Still pending.
October 2017: Albanian government decided to move ahead with dam construction on the Vjosa and gave the Turkish-Albanian consortium Ayen Eneji and Fusha company the concession to build the Kalivaç hydropower plant.
October 2017: ‘Hands off Vjosa’ thousands attend concert in defense of Vjosa
June 2018: International scientists explore 300km of Vjosa and published a study in December 2018
October 2018: Hundreds attend concert to show their support for a free Vjosa
June 2019: New study finds the Vjosa an unsuitable candidate for hydropower plants – new plants would create a lose-lose situation
November 2019: International pressure to protect the Vjosa increases as celebrities such as Leonardo DiCaprio get involved
February 2020: One of the largest science petitions in global freshwater ecology calls to stop Vjosa dam projects in Albania
September 2020: Albanian Environmental Ministry rejected the environmental impact assessment of the Turkish-Albanian investor consortium and the proposed Kalivaç Dam will not be built
February 2021: 20 Albanian environmental organizations under the direction of EcoAlbania submitted a detailed proposal for the creation of the Vjosa National Park to the Minister of Tourism and Environment Blendi Klosi. According to the 16-page proposal, the national park should meet IUCN standards and encompass the entire Vjosa River in Albania as well as the free-flowing tributaries.
March 2021: Patagonia released a new 6-minute film explaining the situation in Albania and calling upon Albanians and Europeans to get involved and support the protection of the river.
March 2021: IUCN presented their new study finding the “protection of the [Vjosa] must be ensured along the entire course of the river in order to achieve basic protection of the “continuity” of the river and sediment transport, as any potential disturbance along the riverbed may have upstream and downstream impacts.”
World Water Day 2021: ‘Vjosa National Park Now’ cloaking the foreground of globally recognized monuments in Paris, Berlin, Brussels, and Tirana, targeting the attention of European and Albanian politicians, urging them to declare the Vjosa in Albania Europe’s first Wild River National Park.
March 2021: European Parliament adopted the 2021 Albanian Progress Report in which they urge Albanians “to establish as soon as possible the Vjosa National Park, extending the whole length of the river…”
December 2021: The Standing Committee of the Bern Convention asked the Albanian authorities to clarify why the proposal of EcoAlbania and IUCN, based on extensive studies to declare the “Vjosa River” as a National Park (Category II), was not considered.
January 2022: The Albanian government declared the Vjosa River a Nature Park (category IV of protected areas) instead of declaring it a National Park (category II of protected areas), as requested by activists for years.
Partners in support of a Vjosa National Park
EcoAlbania, Riverwatch, EuroNatur, Patagonia EcoAlbania, AOS – Albanian Ornithological Society, EDEN – Environmental Centre for Development and Networking, Milieukontakt Albania, PPNEA – Centre for Protection and Preservation of Natural Environment in Albania, PSEDA -ILIRIA – Protection and Social & Environmental Development Association in Albania, IEP – Institute of Environmental Policy, REC-Albania – Resource Environmental Centre, Eco movement group, URI – Urban Research Institute, EPER Centre, Cesvi Albania, ProPërmet Association, Vjosa Explorer, All Green – Center for Protection of Environment and Sustainable Development, PPNE – Vlora – Centre for Protection and Preservation of Natural Environment in Vlora, Res Publica, Argonaut Centre, SEEP Centre – Social Education & Environment Protection, Green Vision Association
International support for a Vjosa National Park
“This is a rare opportunity to really protect one of the last wild big rivers. This would be an asset for Europe but also a contribution to global conservation efforts.”Dr Kathy MacKinnon, Chair of IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas
“We call on the Albanian political leaders, to initiate the necessary steps to plan and designate the Vjosa National Park on the full length of the river in Albania including its tributaries, according to IUCN standards.”Awardees of the Right Livelihood Award
“The Vjosa River runs untamed from source to sea & local community groups in Albania are calling for it to be protected through the establishment of a new national park. Show your support…”Edward Norton
“The Vjosa is the crown of the #BlueHeartofEurope and people across Albania want to protect it forever. They are asking to the government of Albania to create #VjosaNationalParkNow, which would be the very first wild river park in Europe. Let’s stand with them.”Leonardo DiCaprio
“On the occasion of #WorldWaterDay I encourage all Albanians to show solidarity with the cause of declaring #VjosaNationalParkNow. It is our responsibility to protect this precious Albanian and European Union natural heritage from any destructive and abusive projects.”Ilir Meta, President of Albania
“…I join the call of citizens of the Republic of Albania, local and international activists, candidates for deputies of the Movement SELF-DEVELOPMENT! in the elections of April 25 and the institutions of the European Union that the Government of Albania declares the Vjosa Park River National and renounces all plans for the construction of new hydropower lants.”Albin Kurti, Prime Minister Kosovo
“Protecting & restoring free flowing rivers is an #EUBiodiversity Strategy goal! We support the designation of protected areas in all countries including in Albania & its majestic Vjosa river!”Virginijus Sinkevicius, Commissioner for Environment, Oceans and Fisheries
“Let’s fight together for a strong protection of one of Europe’s last wild river in Albania: the Vjosa River.”Thomas Waitz, Member European Parliament, Greens EFA
The Vjosa is Scientific Publications
GEO Biodiversity Days 2014, Vjosa River Report
THE FAUNA OF THE VJOSA RIVER AND THE ADJACENT FLOODPLAIN AT POÇEM
The Vjosa in Albania –a riverine ecosystem of European significance
Measuring of sediment transport and morpho-dynamics at the Vjosa river / Albania
Vjosa River valley – protection study based on IUCN protected area standards
Associated Press Releases:
March 22, 2021: Activists demand political support for a Vjosa National Park in Albania
February 10, 2021: Environmental groups submit a proposal for Europe’s first Wild River National Park
December 17, 2020: Political game with the future of Europe’s last wild river